A Soulless Digital Revolution

WE ARE living in amazing times. Like the Gutenberg mechanical printing revolution which historically changed forever the course of history in Europe and then the rest of the world, we are seeing a similar storm brewing in the world of words today.

The technological innovation of movable print type invented by Johannes Gutenberg, positively impacted the culture of Europe and was definitely a key factor in its renaissance. Significantly, the printing of the Gutenberg Bible signaled for the first time the possibility of the bible being made available to the ‘common’ masses. Whether this digital revolution taking place in our generation will be culturally as significant is debatable. I’ve taken excerpts from the article by Andrew Keen from Telegraph.co.uk on this phenomena for further consideration.

Ebooks will make authors soulless, just like their product
They may be cheaper and more convenient, writes Andrew Keen, but ebooks do not represent meaningful cultural progress.

Published: 3:59PM BST 17 Sep 2009

Physical books – those textual products combining paper and words – are slowly but surely being replaced by the ebook, a handheld computer such as Amazon’s Kindle or the new Sony Reader that incorporates hundreds of texts on a single digital device.

Yesterday, for example, on the day that Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster, The Lost Symbol, was released globally by Random House, digital sales of the book on the Kindle were rivalling paper sales on Amazon.com. As The KindleNation blog said yesterday, it’s hard to imagine what could be a 2009 bigger story in the publishing world than the Kindle’s to compete, head-to-head, with the physical book.

Malcolm Gladwell’s much quoted “tipping point” for the e-book has now been reached. Next year, will see seductive new e-book devices including a Plastic Logic device from Barnes & Noble and a $99.99 dual screen e-reader from Asus. Meanwhile, the iPhone, the Palm Pre and every other smartphone is also a de facto e-book able to store hundreds of texts. The end, therefore, is nigh for the standalone book. The single physical text simply won’t be able to survive the growing e-book storm.

The historic dimensions that this dramatic transition from paper to e-book were really brought home to me last week in Brazil. I had the great fortune to be in Rio, speaking – along with writers as diverse as the Israeli novelist David Grossman, the Anglo-American historical novelist Bernard Cornwall and youth cult author Meg Cabot – at the XIV Rio de Janeiro International Book Fair: TV Bienal.

As one of the biggest public celebration of books and writers in Latin America, the Bienal attacts over 500,000 book lovers for ten days of readings and debates. The importance of the Bienal in Rio cultural life is hard to underestimate. For ten days every September, the Rio Book Fair replaces both the Copacabana beach and the Maracana football stadium as the most popular place for Brazilians to hang out.

I don’t suppose that the digital book revolution will actually do away with the book business. As Christina Zahar told me, it might actually represent an exciting commercial opportunity for publishers to reach a broader audience with their long tail catalogue.

But what the e-reader will do is replace the physical warmth of the paper book with the coldness of the digital version.

I doubt it. The digital revolution does, of course, represent a more convenient and probably a cheaper way for readers to enjoy their favourite authors.

The traditional book is the most physical of things, a text to be bent and fingered and written on and imprinted with human signatures. Something to be physically loved. The ebook revolution changes all that. In the new digital age, readers and writers and publishers will increasingly come to reflect their soulless product.

Yes, you can call me a reactionary, but, as a book author, I want my work to be fingered by my readers. I want young women like Lillian to wait in line for me to sign copies of my work. Like a character in a Stephanie Meyer fantasy, the e-book drains the blood from the physical text. No, this cultural revolution can’t be recommended.

What I do recommend, however, is a visit to Rio’s wonderful Biennal. Go soon, however, very soon, before the digital tsunami hits Brazil and begins to suck the blood of readers and writers alike.

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